The Folly of Anarchy: The Important Difference between Freedom and License

According to the doctrine of anarchy, government is neither necessary nor beneficial because all adult human beings are quite capable of managing their own affairs and ordering amongst themselves, in the best possible way, their relationships with each other. Anarchists believe that, left to themselves, human beings will naturally and spontaneously figure out the best ways to behave, produce and exchange the things they need, and settle their disagreements. Hence, in their view, government is an unnecessary encumbrance on people, and governmental laws, regulations, programs, and taxes are an unwarranted interference in their private affairs.

Anarchists, and those who think like them, exhibit an extraordinary faith in the wisdom, goodness, and prescience of human beings, which, however, is not justified by a perusal of the historical record. For the truth which they fail to recognize is that bad or undesirable models of behaviour – theft, assault, dishonesty, abduction, rape, fraud, extortion, and murder – can develop and become established just as easily as good or beneficial models of behaviour. If we were gods or angels, then anarchy might indeed be a viable social philosophy for our species; but clearly we are very far from being gods or angels, for instead many human beings are vain, selfish, inconsistent, arrogant, ignorant, stubborn, cowardly, wayward, frivolous, prejudiced, emotional, easily corruptible, dishonest, obsessive, cruel, unreliable, biased, lazy, addictive, deceitful, hypocritical, untrustworthy, error-prone, tradition-bound, occasionally vengeful, and myopic creatures.

The fundamental mistake made by anarchists, along with their modern-day progeny like libertarians, is that they fail to make the important distinction between the small, stable, homogeneous societies – which were the norm in the past and where everyone knew each other, and hence, they were less likely to do things that would harm, bother, or oppress the other members of the community – and the vast, anonymous, heterogeneous, and constantly changing urban agglomerations that are characterized by easy and frequent human mobility, where it is impossible for everyone to know everyone else, and in which more and more of the world’s human population lives. They have mistakenly attributed to the larger, anonymous social entity the concern for others and patterns of behaviour that exist in the smaller, cohesive social entity. Moreover, like other utopians, anarchists mistakenly believe that one can create a society of persons according to certain simple rules or principles of behaviour.

In the first kind of society, which depends for its particular characteristics on isolation from external influences and membership homogeneity, which in turn are due primarily to the members’ lack of mobility, the inhabitants have all grown up observing the same models of behaviour, meaning that they know what to expect from the other members and how they will behave in a given situation. As a result, conflicts and disagreements are relatively infrequent among them, and when they arise, there exists an accepted mechanism, such as mediation by a tribal elder, to resolve their disputes peacefully. But clearly, these features that are found in the first, much smaller, homogeneous group are not at all characteristic of the second, much larger, heterogeneous group, which consists of many millions of people who have observed different, and sometimes contradictory, models of behaviour. This is why common rules of behaviour, whether they are informal or formal, as in the case of laws, are necessary in order to regulate their behaviour and resolve the inevitable disputes that arise between some of the inhabitants.

When people who have observed different models of behaviour meet and interact with each other, then obviously there is the potential for conflict and disagreement. Moreover, the Law of Contempt states that people will scorn whatever is different from the models one has grown up observing, and this includes those persons who are different from oneself, such as those who have a different physical appearance, wear different clothes, eat different foods, practise a different religion, or speak a different language. As a result, one is more likely to mistreat these people, such as by cheating, abusing, abducting, enslaving, robbing, raping, killing, or discriminating against them. All of these unjust acts were and are still common occurrences in times and places where intolerance reigns and there is no effective government to protect the weak from the depredations of the strong. Hence, laws, regulations, and governmental control and interference via the police and law courts are occasionally necessary to maintain order, prevent violence and dishonesty, and protect all citizens, in order to allow as many people as possible to lead secure and meaningful lives.

The extremely naive anarchist or libertarian belief that eliminating all forms of government control and interference, which means getting rid of all laws, taxes, and government programs and institutions, will increase the total of human liberty is a dangerous view that fails to take into consideration some very basic facts about human behaviour. For who would declare that a person who lives in a society where crimes like theft, rape, assault, and murder are widespread is more free than a person who lives in a society where there are many laws and punishments that are intended to prevent precisely these and other kinds of undesirable behaviours from becoming widespread? The fear and terror that are prevalent in lawless societies prevents or discourages the inhabitants from doing many ordinary things, such as venturing out during the day or night, including allowing their children to play outside, since they may be abducted, raped, or assaulted by hoodlums and other criminals, or working hard to improve their lives because they know that their possessions can be taken from them at any time. Hence, as this brief discussion shows, in any large society where the members do not all know and respect each other and have grown up observing different models of behaviour, government laws and regulations are needed to preserve freedom and liberty, for otherwise there always exists the possibility that those who have or are able to gain power will use it to oppress, subjugate, terrorize, extort, dispossess, enslave, or otherwise mistreat others.

This brings us to the important distinction between freedom and license. Whereas, in any large heterogeneous society, in order to be preserved, freedom requires government laws and regulations, together with the enforcement of these laws and regulations by arresting and punishing transgressors, in order to prevent violations of or deviations from them, license arises from the absence of all government laws and regulations, meaning the freedom to do whatever one likes, which includes killing, raping, robbing, attacking, and enslaving others. Thus, viewed as a practical, rather than as a purely theoretical or philosophical, matter, in order to preserve the greatest amount of freedom for the greatest number of people, as human societies have grown larger and larger, it has been found necessary to limit people’s freedom in certain respects or situations. To an extent, these limitations certainly reduce some people’s freedom, but their aim is to ensure or protect their freedom in other important ways, so that the inhabitants can lead lives that are free from the fear of murder, assault, robbery, rape, abduction, and other crimes against their persons, their children, and their private property.

License is freedom without any checks or restraints. In an individual human being, this happens when a person’s frontal lobes are either damaged or not fully developed, such as in persons whose mothers consumed large amounts of alcohol while they were pregnant. In societies, this occurs whenever there is no effective system of restraint and punishment, meaning the police and legal system whose function is to prevent certain kinds of undesirable behaviours like theft, rape, assault, and murder from becoming widespread. In a very real sense, the police and judicial system perform the function that the frontal lobes, or a person’s conscience, perform in the case of an individual, by declaring which behaviours are considered criminal, improper, or unacceptable by the society in which one happens to live, and by punishing those who commit them.

Contrary to what anarchists and libertarians claim about human behaviour, most people use their freedom in a responsible manner only when there exists an effective system of punishments for wrongdoing. When no such system exists, then some people are much more likely to behave in a licentious manner. To give just one example, if there were no punishment for rape, then it is obvious that many more men would rape the women they fancy.[1] The same is true of theft, which likewise would become much more common if it were not punished. In such cases, there would result a violent degeneration of society into a struggle between the strong and the weak, with the strong doing as they please, while the weak must tolerate the abuses and depredations of the strong, and where individuals or groups are forced to seek retaliation as the only form of justice available to them. In Sicily, for example, in order to protect the family honour when a girl was raped or seduced, it was the duty of a male member of the family, such as the girl’s brother, to kill the rapist or seducer unless he agreed to marry her. I very much doubt that most people would want to return to living in a society where this brutal and primitive kind of justice prevails, where theft leads to more theft and where murder begets more murder.

There are many members of all societies that will do whatever they see the majority of people doing. Hence, if the majority behaves in a law-abiding manner, then they too will behave, for the most part, in a law-abiding manner. But if they see the majority behaving in a criminal or licentious manner, then they will behave likewise. This is why all orderly societies have seen fit to implement systems of police control and judicial punishment, in order to control the behaviour of their inhabitants and check the growth of any criminal or undesirable activities so that they do not become widespread, in which case they will be imitated by more and more people.

Free-market or laissez-faire capitalism can be regarded as the concept of anarchy limited to the realm of economic activity. It is wrong for the same reasons that the philosophy of anarchy is wrong in general. The many free-market fanatics have confused economic freedom with economic license. The arguments that these fanatics of economic freedom present against government regulations fall into two categories: either regulations are wrong because they infringe people’s freedom, or they are superfluous because the free market will regulate itself. Sometimes a combination of these two arguments is presented. But as we have seen in the case of anarchy, the belief that the complete absence of governmental laws and regulations will produce the best of all possible social or economic outcomes is a view that is so absurdly naive and ignorant of reality as to boggle the imagination. It cannot simply be assumed that all the participants in an economy will act responsibly if they are free to do whatever they want, for some of them will seek to profit by using shady, dishonest, underhand, or criminal methods. And yet, following the collapse of communism, this erroneous dogma has become increasingly accepted and promulgated in many parts of the world by many educated – or it were better to call them grossly miseducated – people.[2] By seeking to give individuals and corporations the unbridled, meaning unregulated, license to do as they please, they are guilty of causing a great deal of harm to large numbers of people all over the world.

Another criticism of anarchy, and its modern offshoots like libertarianism, is that their proponents have made the mistake of assuming that only freedom matters, or that freedom is the highest of all human values and concerns. In other words, these fanatics have made an idol of freedom, to which they want the rest of humanity to submit and prostrate themselves. But clearly there are other things that are also important and matter just as much as, or even more than, freedom. These include personal safety, equality, harmony, and fairness. Moreover, there is a trade-off between safety and freedom. The inhabitants of most societies have decided that it is entirely legitimate to restrict some people’s freedom, in extreme cases by depriving them of their freedom by imprisoning them, in order to protect others from the harm that these persons would otherwise inflict on them if they were free to do so.

To allow anarchists or libertarians to impose their beliefs on society, by eliminating most or all existing laws, would be a far greater injustice and act of tyranny than for these individuals to have to obey these laws. After all, there is nothing that obliges any individual who dislikes the laws of a democratic society to remain in it. Only if one were prohibited from leaving that society could one rightfully argue that society is imposing these laws on one. If they wish, anarchists and libertarians can live apart from society, hermit-like by oneself or with a group of like-minded individuals, a course that some individuals who find society’s many laws and rules inimical to their beliefs have chosen to follow. But to want to impose their beliefs on the majority is nothing more than a form of tyrannical minority rule, which would be even more unjust than the majority rule which they constantly denounce because it denies them, as they selfishly and self-righteously insist, their inalienable right to do as they please as free individuals.

But most anarchists and libertarians do not have the courage or resolve to leave the society whose, according to them, unjust laws and restrictions on their freedom are a form of tyrannical oppression and live elsewhere, free from these laws and restrictions. Instead, like a child that refuses to do the things one is told to do because one does not understand the reasons for them, the physically mature but intellectually immature adults known as anarchists and libertarians refuse to obey society’s laws and regulations because they fail to understand the very good reasons why, without exception, all large, ordered, safe, and prosperous societies, in all times and places, have decided to adopt and preserve them.

As we can see, in wanting to impose their views on everyone else, libertarians and anarchists are just as tyrannical as communists and other ideologues, although the effects of their ideology, if they were ever to achieve their goal, would be very different from those of communism. Despite all the noises they make about freedom, they are just as coercive as other ideologues who want to impose their beliefs on society because, not content with the way things are, they want to make radical changes by refashioning society according to their overly simplistic and false ideology.

Ultimately, there exist only models of behaviour. The question is not, as it has generally been conceived until now, which overarching ideological doctrine is better or more true than its rivals, for these, being poor human systems and creations, will inevitably leave out many important things and, the more rigidly their proponents adhere to their supposedly sacrosanct principles, diverge from reality, but how we can establish, encourage, and preserve beneficial models of behaviour, while preventing, reducing, displacing, and eradicating harmful or undesirable models of behaviour. Whether we are talking about poverty, inequality, prejudice, ignorance, violence, crime, drug abuse, pollution, human overpopulation, the overconsumption of limited resources, or climate change, mass species extinction, and environmental degradation that are caused by human activities, it is only by changing the dominant models of behaviour that we will be able to solve these urgent and pressing problems. And it is precisely in order to preserve good or beneficial models of behaviour, while correcting or preventing bad models of behaviour, that all large, heterogeneous societies require government, along with its many laws, programs, taxes, restrictions, regulations, organisations, and institutions.

[1] The many men who presently find the thought of raping a woman morally repugnant fail to understand how different their feelings would be if they had grown up in a society where rape is common. It is an innate feature of human beings that they are neither shocked, nor morally outraged, by actions which they frequently observe or hear about being performed, especially when these actions are performed by persons they know and respect, as is the case with rape in some parts of the world today.

[2] This deplorable result is largely the fault of economists and their mistaken beliefs about human behaviour, beginning with the falsehood that we are, for the most part, selfish rational creatures who seek only to maximize our individual utility. The consequence of these and other false theories and beliefs that are espoused and taught by economists has been to impose on more and more of the world’s human population specific models of behaviour that, in many ways, are far from ideal or beneficial.